Now, ladies and gentlemen, is a good time for the casual Leaf fan to start paying attention.
A lot of hardcores like myself despise the casual fan. They haven't suffered the way we've suffered. They don't have the same understanding of the team's dynamic and they're always mis-pronouncing players' names. I admit, sometimes I get a little annoyed too but in general I embrace these fans. Sure, they're kind of the estranged uncle of Leaf Nation, but they're still part of the family.
Even the casual fan wants to be able to talk intelligibly about prospects, guys that have grown with the organization, shrewd moves that the GM has made &c. &c. and for this reason I call these fans to come out of hibernation, pull out their
Why is now the time to start paying attention, you ask? Let me be clear, I don't think the Leafs will win the Cup next year. Having said this, if you want to know what you're talking about when they do, it's time to familiarize yourself with the team.
Brian Burke has a lot more assets now than he did when he took the team over.
The Defense: Things are starting to stabilize on defense where Dion Phaneuf has regained some of the scoring prowess which garnered him a Norris Trophy nomination in 2007-08 and Luke Schenn has become an imposing defensive force. Keith Aulie and Carl Gunnarsson have both developed well and will likely play prominent roles moving forward. Mike Komisarek... well, Mike Komisarek only has three more years on his contract, so that's something.
The Forwards: Our top six is starting to take shape as the line of Grabovski, MacArthur (who is an RFA) and Kulemin really blossomed last year and showed they could play a strong two-way game. Phil Kessel continues to reliably put up better than 30 goals, even though he has no center to speak of.
Guys like Mike Brown, Colby Armstrong and Tyler Bozak (RFA) put in very respectable bottom-six minutes and are likely part of the team's core.
The Goalies: Toskala is gone and Raycroft is long gone. Giguere's albatross of a contract is off the books and James Reimer had a fantastic rookie season. Gustavsson has faltered a bit but hopefully Reimer can continue to show that he's a legitimate number one goaltender which would render that issue moot. It's tough to say what Reimer is for sure, but it seems likely that he will be better and less expensive than what we've had since the end of the lockout.
The Prospects: Nazem Kadri may not have developed as quickly as many had hoped, but he's still considered a very good prospect. He needs to get bigger or move to the wing, but either way, he should be a top-six NHL player unless something goes horribly wrong in his development. Joe Colborne is a big center with promise and while many think he's still quite raw, the tools are there and it's very possible that he ends up being a top-six guy as well. Jake Gardiner is an offensive defenseman and is another solid prospect that will be expected to make an impact at the NHL level sooner rather than later.
The Cap: Sure, we have some RFAs that we'll have to sign to new contracts but we have an absolute ton of cap space. If Brad Richards doesn't come to Toronto, it wont be because we can't afford to sign him. The contracts of players on the team are nicely staggered which will allow Brian Burke some flexibility year-over-year. This is probably the best position the team has found itself in since the cap came into place.
The Picks: Two late firsts and an early second this year. Our own first and second and Boston's second next year. It's a foreign feeling for most Leaf fans to see that we'll be picking more than our share in the early rounds of the NHL Entry Draft but it's true!
What All Of This Means: In my mind, the Leafs are now in a position where Brian Burke can start trying to get the pieces he really wants. There are enough attractive prospects that he could try and acquire a disgruntled star if one comes available. There are enough picks in the cupboard that we could package them to move up if there's a player our scouting staff really likes. There's enough cap space that no free agent is too expensive if money is the only issue.
In short, we have options. The core of the team is starting to identify itself. There are players that would be attractive to other teams in trade situations. Our prospects... we have prospects!
Things are coming together for the Toronto Maple Leafs and it's going to be a busy summer. Time to start paying attention.